Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Not A Duck

It seems to me that the quality of PBS offerings are declining. The network is imitating the cable channels, offering up shows that purport to offer real information but that are little more than mere entertainment. An example of this is the series "Supernatural Science". I watched a bit of it tonight. A couple of individuals were making the case that there was indeed contact between the civilizations of ancient Egypt and those of the Americas. They cited two particular pieces of what they took to be evidence. The first was the fact that both civilizations were characterized by large, monumental pyramids. The second was the presence of traces of tobacco, cocaine, and hashish in Egyptian mummies.

At first glance, these seem like provocative observations. However, closer analysis suggests otherwise. The physical fact of the matter is that if you want to build a big, monumental structure and the only building material available to you is stone, then it pretty much has to be a pyramid. The reason is simple. A pyramid is basically a series of stacked squares each of which is smaller in area than the one below it. The pyramids of Cheops in Egypt didn't just appear from out of nowhere. The earliest tombs of the pharaohs were square and rectangular structures. Next came the step pyramids, squares stacked upon squares. Finally we have the geometrical pyramids. The Egyptians didn't get them right the first time though. One of the earliest of these structures rises at a steep angle but halfway up the angle of rise changes to a gentler slope. The architects obviously decided that the pyramid as originally conceived wasn't stable. After that they got it right. There is no evidence that the early inhabitants of the Americas learned to build pyramids from the Egyptians or anyone else for that matter. They were simply operating under the same laws of physics in the Americas as they were in Egypt.

As for the traces of tobacco, cocaine, and hashish in the Egyptian mummies. Now that sounds intriguing, but not so much when you consider that the analyzed mummies have been in museums since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is every reason to believe that they were contaminated with tobacco and cocaine by those who handled them. That sounds about right when it comes to tobacco. Those nineteenth-century archaeologists would have seen no reason to prevent contamination with the materials that they smoked, but cocaine? It isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. In the nineteenth century, cocaine use was common, especially among the educated elite. It was even considered beneficial. Figures as well-known as Sigmund Freud were cocaine users. It was only later, the 1920's if memory serves me, that it came to be seen as a dangerous drug. That's two out of three explained, but what about the hashish? Well, it's likely that the members of the pharaoh's court smoked weed and hashish. There is historical evidence that the drug was used in the area at the time.

There's an old saw that says, if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, then it must be a duck. Not necessarily. It so easy for us to deceive ourselves. Just because something seems plausible doesn't necessarily mean that it's so. We have to use our minds.


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